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* News: DNA links I-40 rest stop death to killing of California woman
Posted Sep 05, 2002
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     A DNA match proves the same man raped and stabbed a New Jersey motorist to death near Morrilton two years ago and then killed a California woman four months later, investigators said Tuesday.

     Kristin Laurite of Scotch Plains, N.J., and Jackie Travis, who was born in Arkansas but lived in Merced, Calif., when she died, are feared not to be
the killer's only victims.

     "Right now we are not saying it's a serial killer," Arkansas State Police Special Agent Karl Byrd said during a news conference at the rest stop where Laurite was killed. "But in California, there are some other homicides that could possibly be committed by the same person.

     "Some of the forensic evidence [from other cases] is being examined."

     Though investigators have linked the two cases, they do not know the identity of the killer. They haven¹t said what kind of evidence was used to get the genetic match.

     Conway County Sheriff Mark Flowers also said he is reviewing unsolved murder cases for a possible connection. Among them is a 1994 case in which a still unidentified woman was found stabbed to death near some railroad tracks about 1 1/2 miles east of Morrilton.

     Unlike the Laurite and Travis cases, no DNA from the killer was found in that murder. Byrd said investigators got a DNA "hit" in the two cases on July 17 after a genetic profile left at the Laurite crime scene was sent to crime labs across the country.

     Kermit Channell, a forensic biologist at the Arkansas Crime Laboratory and supervisor of the state¹s DNA data bank, said that at least 10 genetic markers, or identifying characteristics, from the DNA found in Arkansas are "clear and distinct" matches to the DNA in the California case.

     "This helps quite a bit. We've got twice as much evidence now," Flowers said. "I feel like it¹s the biggest break we've had."

     Laurite, 25, had stopped at an Interstate 40 rest stop at Morrilton on Aug. 25, 2000, to exercise her dogs halfway through a cross-country trip to
California. While there, the petite daycare worker encountered her killer.

     Her nude body was found the next day at an isolated pond about 300 yards behind the rest stop.

     Nearly four months later on Dec. 7, 2000, Travis' body was found in the bedroom of her apartment just blocks from a busy shopping area in the town of about 64,000 people, Merced Police Department Sgt. Norm Andrade said.

     Andrade declined to say how Travis was killed or if she was raped. He
said only that she "suffered a violent physical assault." There was no sign of forced entry into her apartment.

     Detectives from the two agencies met last week and shared information, and they are asking people who know of anyone traveling between Arkansas and California at the time of the murders to call state police.

     Friends of Travis' and an employee at the apartment complex said the
49-year-old unemployed woman had lived there for about a month when she was murdered.

     John Hukill of Merced said he had known Travis, who had lost one of her legs after a car accident, for 15 years and had helped her get the apartment in Merced.

     Before then, Hukill said the grandmother of five had lived in a nearby homeless shelter. Travis, whose maiden name was Puckett, was born in Newport, Ark., and last lived in the state in 1982. She moved to Merced in 1983. "She was a great lady. She had a good heart. She was like my second mom," Hukill said, adding that the recovering drug addict relapsed in the last few weeks of her life.

     "There at the end, she got into the wrong crowd. That's when everything went to hell."

     At first, Hukill said many thought another drug addict had killed Travis. When he heard news reports Tuesday that her murder had been linked to one in Arkansas, Hukill was dismayed.

     "It's just crazy. I pray they get this guy," he said.

     Thousands of miles away in Indiana, Laurite's aunt, Renee Freitag, also was fielding calls about the new developments. Though the family had been
told about the DNA match before Tuesday, Freitag said Laurite's parents still were stunned.

     "It's a mixed blessing. We're so, so sad there¹s another victim," she said. "Yet it's encouraging that there's a connection. We have more ways to track him down now."

     How Laurite and Travis became victims of the same killer remains a mystery.

     The women have no connection. They did not look alike, and they had more than 20 years age difference between them.

     "We've got to find this guy and fast," Freitag said. "That's something we fear that there are going to be more victims."

Written By: Amy Upshaw, of
the Aarkansas Democrat-Gazette

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